Tablets investigate

Will your plumber and repair technician soon be carrying Tablet PCs?

Many vendors are talking about wireless and computing solutions for field service workers. They view this as a big opportunity to bring business process improvements. See Motion Computing's new Tablet PC for field service and learn more about the potential computing scenarios.

At the Gartner Mobile & Wireless Summit this week in Chicago, I saw the usual dog and pony show from various smartphone makers, mobile software developers, and mobile management and security vendors. But something that surprised me was how many vendors were talking about wireless solutions for field service workers -- plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and various types of repair technicians.

When these folks come to your home and office, you don't currently see many of them carrying computing devices. Sure, nearly all of them carry cell phones -- sometimes multiple cell phones -- but when they're done, most of them still whip out a clipboard and a three-ply form that you have to press really hard to sign so that your signature comes clear on all three sheets.

Apparently, the IT industry sees these valuable workers as one of the next great untapped markets for business computing. One of the vendors aggressively going after this market is Tablet PC specialist Motion Computing, which released its F5 Mobile Field Tool this week at the Garter event. The F5 evolved from Motion's C5 Mobile Clinical Assistant, which has seen strong adoption in health care computing.

The specs for the F5 are:

  • 10.4" XGA display
  • View Anywhere screen for viewing in full sunlight
  • Intel Centrino processor
  • Up to 2 GB of RAM
  • Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Tablet PC Edition
  • Optional 32 GB solid state hard drive
  • Integrated Wi-Fi
  • Integrated Bluetooth
  • Integrated 3G wireless broadband (optional)
  • Multi-directional array microphone design with 2 microphones
  • 2.0 megapixel camera
  • Barcode scanner
  • RFID reader
  • Semi-rugged IP54 casing

Another company that is doing semi-rugged Tablet PCs is Data Limited Inc., which trotted out its DLI 8300 (below), a similar product that also has the option for a credit card scanner. DLI recently won a big contract with the world largest entertainment park to deploy its Tablet PCs as point-of-sale terminals throughout the facility.

Motion and DLI see a variety of other usage scenarios for these rugged Tablet PCs. "They are less a computer, and more a tool," said Mike Stinson, Motion's VP of Marketing. Some of the scenarios for these "tools" include:

  • Transportation agents
  • Insurance claims adjusters
  • Warehouse workers
  • Hospitality agents
  • Line busting (collecting presale data from customers in long lines)
  • Roaming ticket sales
  • Mobile point-of-sale (cash register)
  • Mobile return counter
  • Mobile concession stand

Bottom line

These rugged slate Tablet PCs are about streamlining business process management. That includes going paperless, reducing input errors, more accurately tracking time, and speeding up data flow. Of course, all of that requires line-of-business software to take advantage of what the Tablet PC hardware can do and backend systems to handle the data processing. And it will also require some extensive retraining of field staff.

Thus, these tablet scenarios will make sense for large enterprises, most of which already have the infrastructure in place for training and backend synchronization. However, there are still a lot of field workers out there who are sole proprietors or freelance agents loosely affiliated with networks that send them business. It will be a much longer timeline for converting those workers over to these types of digital systems.

One of the things that could accelerate the process for sole proprietors is if they could have a full line-of-business client on the Tablet PC and a SaaS solution on the backend, where they could simply access their sales and P&L information from a Web browser.

What do you think? Join the discussion.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

14 comments
oldbaritone
oldbaritone

It's another "creeping feature." Just like major restaurants with bar control and food control systems, eventually most service technicians will have some type of portable computer, probably with GPS, with them at all times. But there's a cost, so it will take a while. But sooner or later, "Big Brother" will be watching them too. Thanks, Mr. Orwell.

THandford
THandford

I work for 1-800-Plumber of Greenville, SC, and this is my personal opinion. We have been using tablet pcs for almost two years now. It is really nice not having to fumble around with papers in the truck or in front of the customer. When we are finished with a job the customer can receive the invoice by email on-the-spot. I really enjoy having this technology.

pcervieri
pcervieri

here are some video documentaries of doctors and patients using web technologies to diagnose, manage and treat diseases and conditions: http://health.scribemedia.org/2008/03/07/doctors- patients-diseases- conditions/ more and more doctors / patients are using tablet, blackberry, etc.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

They seem to prefer the toughbook offering of a tablet but the Roger's internet and phone techs have been carrying one for a few years now. It's brilliant; why has it taken so long to start catching on?

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

As good as any HP scope.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I know of a certain auto manufacturer who is using them in dealerships - they have a wireless diagnostic tool, and a tablet - the information from the tool displays on the tablet and they can log into their system to make notes, order parts etc from the tablet. James

CG IT
CG IT

It's a no brainer to have a tablet with everything a repair tech needs to fix whatever, create estimates and print out receipts. Now if printer mfgs could make a reliable B&W portable printer that will print 8 1/2 X 11 receipts without breaking down half way through the print process be great...no one makes an affordable mobile printer that works decently

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I had my dryer repaired over three years ago. The field tech had a device about the size of Palm Pilot on Viagra, with a stylus. I didn't notice the make or model, but he said he transferred data between it and a central database a couple of times a day. It used a cell phone as a modem.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Original post: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/hiner/?p=606 This has potential, but I think sole proprietors will be very slow to jump on the bandwagon, unless there's a fat client line-of-business app on their tablet with a hosted backend solution that they can just access with a browser.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Finally, you've found a tech job you might actually be able to master.

Dr Dij
Dr Dij

we'll then become plumbers and electricians who have an understanding of technology and have to carry their Crackberries and tablet PCs around. Plus our reverse-polarizable iso-spanners.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

I'm glad you brought that up. There are still a bunch of companies out there selling line-of-business solutions using PDAs. However, a lot of those companies are starting to convert some (not all) of their products to Tablet PCs for several reasons, most notably: more screen real estate and a better platform for application development. These PCs have integrated 3G wireless broadband for data transfer.

lastchip
lastchip

Posts like this make me wonder just how far behind the US really is. The last time I had my boiler repaired/serviced, the technician had a Panasonic Roughbook (OK, not a tablet), but the way it was configured was superb. For a start, it had a complete library of all the manuals, trouble shooting charts, pressure settings and everything else you can think of, for every boiler this company maintains. It had an integrated stock control system, that moved parts from the techies vehicle to the clients boiler, automatically reordered replacement parts for next day delivery and via a mobile printer, printed out the clients invoice. In short, it was a completely automated mobile administration system that only required the techie to input the parts he used. Apparently, at the days end, the data is uploaded via a secure link to the head office, where it is integrated not only into the company's stock control system, but keeps track of the techies jobs, how long they took, whether it was necessary (for whatever reason) for the techie to return and so on. Note: he didn't have to return, the job was excellent and all the parts were available from the vehicle. Very impressive. By contrast, the last time I visited the US (Sanford International Airport) for a holiday with my family, I was astonished there wasn't even a working cash machine. The one and only ATM was broken!